Unicycling clown goes unnoticed to those on cell phones

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October 27, 2009

1:02 AM

According to a recent study at Western Washington University, talking on a cell phone can make something as ridiculous as a clown riding a unicycle go unnoticed.

Professors in WVU department of psychology recently studied whether or not talking on cell phones causes “inattentional blindness.” The term is used to describe when a person fails to record images they see in their memory. To test their theory, the researchers designed an experiment in which a student dressed in a polka-dotted clown suit rode around a highly trafficked campus square. The researchers would then poll students on what they noticed upon exiting the square.

“I was trying to think about what kind of distraction we could put out there, and I talked to this student who had a unicycle,” psychology professor Ira E. Hyman Jr. said in an interview with the New York Times. “He said, ‘What’s more, I own a clown suit.’ You don’t have a student who unicycles in a clown suit every day, so you have to take advantage of these things.”

The 347 students randomly polled in the first study were split up into three different categories depending on what they were doing while crossing the square: walking alone or listening to music, talking to a friend, or talking on a cell phone.

Students engaged in a cell phone conversation were more prone to both walking erratically and not acknowledging fellow students.

“It’s a huge drop-off of awareness of the environment around them,” Hyman said. “It shows that even during as simple a task as walking, performance drops off when talking on the cellphone [sic]. They’re slower, less aware of their surroundings, and weaving around more. It shows how much worse it would be if they were driving a car, which is a more complex task to manage.”

When asked if they remembered what they saw, about 30 percent of those walking by themselves said they saw a clown, as opposed to close to 60 percent of those who were talking to a friend. Only 8 percent of the cell phone users remembered seeing a clown while crossing the square.

When prompted with a question specifically about the clown the percentages of those that remembered increased to close to 70 percent for those walking with a friend but only to 25 percent for those on a cell phone.

“They were utterly surprised they missed it,” Hyman said. “You can think you’re doing fine and be missing all sorts of things.”

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